Pop Psychology: The study of fatherhood.
That’s a joke, but then as far as I can tell, fatherhood is kind of a joke, in our society.
Each child is biologically required to have a mother. Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact.
—- P.J. O’Rourke
You hear people talking about ‘mothering,’ but seriously, does anyone ever really say, ‘fathering’? Fathers are the distant stepchildren of parenting, the ‘other guys,’ the second bananas. Whereas a new Mom is ‘in her glory,’ Pop is more like, ‘along for the ride.’ While motherhood is seen as a sacred commitment, a holy blessing and a joy forever, fathering is more like, “Hey, buddy – yeah you, the one who’s trying to lam out that back door: get back in here and do your duty!”
While many (maybe most?) young women dream at some point, or at least fantasize, about becoming a mother, I don’t think many young men would describe having a child as a life goal, or a major fulfillment (though it may become that, later). Women frequently come into therapy to deal with their unfulfilled desperation to have a child, or their guilt, loss and even shame about not having had one, but men most often seek help to talk about their ambivalence about having a child, or their fears that they won’t be able to ‘get into’ the whole parenting thing, if they do have one. While women tend to see babies as adorable and endearing, men frequently see them as, well . . . boring.
So then, what exactly is fathering, anyway, other than evidence of (uh oh!) unprotected sex?
I take parenting very seriously. When my wife’s out with her friends, I always try and check on the kid before my second gin and tonic.
— A former patient
Well, the good news for prospective fathers is that the bar has not been set very high. If you can bring in a few bucks pretty steadily, avoid hitting anyone, show up for parent-teacher nights, recitals and graduations, take a few ‘shifts’ at night, drive little people around town every so often, and remember birthdays, you’re probably in good shape. And if you’re actually willing to put in the time to form any sort of real relationship with your kids, well you’re a champ. Don’t panic: I don’t mean drop everything and give up your whole life to ‘bond’ with anyone – just be nice, try to show interest in things, teach people to shave, tell people they’re beautiful.
See – that isn’t so hard, is it?
Oh, and if, like me, you do actually find yourself getting involved ‘for real’ and thinking your kids are wonderful, don’t fight it: you’re in for the ride of a lifetime! No, it’s not the same as winning your fantasy football league, or getting that big promotion, or making partner, or sinking that two-footer to take twenty-five bucks off that insufferable, gloating neighbor of yours: it’s better.
Look, when most men have a kid, they want to go around passing out cigars, proud that they continued the ‘line’ of Smiths, or Johnsons, or Abromowitzes. It’s like, “Look at me – the stud,” akin to strutting out of a board meeting and announcing to all and sundry, “Dude – I killed in there!”
And then, for the next eighteen years, comes the actual raising of the ‘line,’ and dude, that’s not quite so sexy and studly. You don’t swagger into the office and say, “Whoa, I rock! Three diaper changes last night, and I didn’t smear shit all over myself even once!” And you don’t get high-fives all-around for spending the day driving a station wagon full of writhing little people to a soccer game, a t-ball practice and Gymboree, without losing anyone.
But you do get something else – something that sinks in deeper, and lasts longer, than a momentary flush of manly pride. It’s the realization that, much to your surprise, you actually have the chance to influence an actual person’s actual life. No, not just mindlessly spreading your seed and ‘continuing your line,’ but maybe helping create a better ‘‘line’ for your kids, and doing a good job, not at work, but at home – the job of giving a little person a decent start in life, and taking pride in them, not yourself.
Now I don’t mean to imply that you’ll become a saint, or that you’ll take boundless joy in missing that Giants game on TV, in order to cart Junior around the world all weekend. No, you’ll still want to do your own stuff, and maybe sometimes resent the hell out of your rug rats for stealing what’s left of your youth, but for every withdrawal of time and energy, there’s a deposit made, that’s even bigger: the knowledge, and satisfaction, that you’re participating in something that’s bigger than yourself, something that’s even (gasp!) more important than the Giants game, that somebody needs you, and that, dammit, you’re coming through for them. And all this is something that’s really hard to explain to a guy who hasn’t had children, or is terrified by the thought of what having children will ‘do’ to his life.
Because you can’t put into words what it’s like to sit there in the stands when your son comes up to bat in a Little League game, and, with tears in your eyes, say to yourself, “That’s my boy!” Or to sit there and watch your daughter, who was scared out of her wits the night before, stand up there and belt out her lines in the school play, and think, “You go, girl!’ Is it too crazy to say it’s almost a religious experience, a spiritual one? I don’t know – maybe. But it’s not far off. Because isn’t religion all about seeing that we’re bigger than just individual blobs of protoplasm, that there are things beyond us, that we’re a part of something much bigger than being John Doe? Well, having kids takes you to those places, those spiritual spaces, beyond yourself.
Yes, I know that most men (including myself) don’t ‘get it’ until they have their own kids: before that, you hear guys talking about their children, and you nod at all the right times, but honestly, it’s like, “Yeah, whatever.” You watch your girlfriend get all excited about her best friend’s baby shower, and honestly, all you’re thinking is, “Please, god, don’t let her come home in a lather about having a baby.” It’s not that you don’t understand, in some abstract mental universe in the back of your mind, what all the hullabaloo is about – it’s just that it doesn’t really hit home.
And then your wife or girlfriend gets pregnant (planned, or not) and you decide to have the baby. And you think, “Yeah, cool – I can handle this,” but it’s still just an abstraction. And you deal with her food cravings, and it’s cute that she wants lobster bisque in the middle of the night, and gets sick to her stomach when there’s a Frito in the room – but it’s all an abstraction. And you feel her stomach when the baby’s kicking, but honest to god, you’re really just kind of humoring her, because it’s not ‘real’ to you, other than the late-night dread about your lost life, which of course you can’t share with that lady with the big belly lying next to you, that brave girl who’s willing to go through all this to bring a new life into the world – a life that is connected to her, not you.
And then the big day arrives. She says, “This is it,” and you race her to the hospital, more worried, in the back of your mind, about something ‘happening’ to her, than the baby itself. And you stand there, dutifully, in your mask and gown, or you sit there in the waiting room, and you act like you’re participating, thinking, this is it – the end of the pickles and the lobster, the end of the backaches and the swollen feet, the end of the emotional jags and the guilt-trips about not letting her have a baby – but it’s still not about the kid, not really. And if you’re thinking anything, you’re thinking, “Oh god – just let her live! I don’t want to lose her!” and you’re so darn proud of her, for going through all of this for you, for us.
And then it happens: the baby pops out, or is cut out, or is pulled out, but somehow, it gets out of there – that zone that, a long time ago, used to be yours – and you’re so relieved, and proud, that she made it through – that your girl made it through all the way. And it’s still about her, that brave lady who has done this amazing thing, for you, for us.
And then your attention finally shifts to ‘it’ – a baby girl. And that’s when it hits you: Oh My God, it’s a baby! It’s our baby! It’s my baby! I’m a father, and I have a baby! An honest-to-god, real-life baby of our own!
And in that instant, your life is changed, forever.
How? Well, it’s hard to explain, if you haven’t ‘been there,’ but I’ll try. In that instant, you find, or rather you experience, bodily, that you are connected – to all of humanity since time immemorial, to the history of life, to everyone before you. And you are now part of the great ‘fraternity’ of life, too – the club of people who have had children. You are now an initiate into the great mystery of life: like a retired attorney is ‘of counsel,’ you are now ‘of humanity,’ a member in full standing of the chain of human events. You find your eyes filling with tears, and all you can think is, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
In the movie Resurrection, Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who, as a result of a near-fatal accident, develops spiritual powers. At one point, she goes ‘back to the farm’ where her father – a hard, flinty man – is dying. He doesn’t give an inch, emotionally, until just as he is dying, when he begins to experience his ‘passing,’ and he suddenly breaks down and sobs, “The light . . . oh, my.” Well, a baby is like that. I have friends who say their first acid trip was like that, back in the Sixties – that it changed everything, from then on. I wouldn’t know – my only ‘trip’ ended with a desperation to come back to normal life, and a bad neck-ache for the next week.
But your concept of being a father, at the moment you see that baby girl, changes forever. It’s not what you thought, anymore: not just a series of obligations, or that you have to share your wife, or getting no sleep for the next two years, or giving up your basketball games on Saturday. Sure, it might ‘mean’ those things, technically, but it’s suddenly so much more: it’s that the baby is part of YOU, part of US, that you WANT to do things for her, that you identify with her. It’s that what happens to her, happens to YOU. It’s that how you act, now affects HER.
I didn’t have to go to Vietnam – my bad back spared me that particular honor. So I’ll never know how I would have acted ‘under fire.’ But I wondered about it. And I think most boys think about that at some point in their lives, seeing war movies, playing video games, listening to older guys talk about their time in the ‘service.’
But I do know this: when I caught sight of my son Brett, at age three, just as he ran headlong into the surf at Sea Ranch, on a stretch of beach that was marked, “Dangerous riptides,” I ran for all I was worth and jumped in. Now mind you, I don’t know how to swim, don’t like the water, don’t even like hot tubs. But all that didn’t matter: I ran like a man possessed, jumped in the water and paddled and kicked for dear life. I could see him up ahead of me, tumbling around and around in the undertow, tossed up and then sucked down, again and again. I prayed, “Please, God, if you’re there: please help me – not for me, but for him!” It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to swim, that I was half-drowning, myself. I was like a crazy man. All I could think was, “My boy is in trouble! I’ve got to save him – got to!” Finally, I reached him, and slung him on my back, trying to keep his head above the surging waters. I staggered, gasping for air, pushing for all I was worth against the weight of the surge that was trying to pull us backwards toward the open sea.
Finally, I was able to drop down on all fours, and with him on my back, crawl laboriously forward towards the shore, rocks and sand grinding into my knees with every move.
At last, we made it, me and my boy, my Brett who was part of me – the best part. We lay there panting for a few minutes, then he, being Brett, got up and dashed off to his next adventure, with a little glance backward that said, “My Daddy!” And in that moment, I knew I would have done just fine in Vietnam, and much more than that, that in saving my boy, I had become more of a man. I was part of the earth in a different way, part of the human race in a deeper way.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a God who listens to the prayers of desperate fathers, but in that moment, as I watched my boy race away, I felt that if there is a God, it’s somehow all tied up with love and devotion – because being a father forces you to get your mind off of yourself and look beyond you, beyond all of us, and be a part of something big, something that has no end.
I stood up and brushed myself off. I saw the boys up on the bluff, kicking a sparkly soccer ball back and forth, and set off to join them – so thankful, in a new and deeper way, for the grace of being a father.
And then, suddenly, like one of those big breakers, it hit me: all along, they were raising me!
I couldn’t get the smile off my face all afternoon.
Fatherhood: it’s no joke.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.